- Written by Rick Schmidt
- Published on 17 June 2010
DACs are taking over. I've been waiting for this day ever since the CD format came out because DACs provide an upgrade path. Upgrading is fun. And because DACs are cool. The conversion from digital to analog is of course crucial and for electrical engineers holds more than a little fascination as the music is (we hope) recreated from simple ones and zeroes. Since this Neko Audio DAC was shipping from deep within Silicon Valley in California, I assumed it was designed by an engineer who was otherwise employed but had a passion for audio. My assumption was correct, and that passion is well expressed in this design.
- Design: Two-Channel Digital to Analog Converter (DAC)
- Codecs: 16 and 24 Bit, 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 96 kHz, 192 kHz
- Inputs: Coax, Toslink Optical
- Outputs: Single-Ended RCA, Balanced XLR
- Gold Plated Connectors
- Gold Plated Solder Pads on Internal Circuitry
- Dimensions: 2.5" H x 10.5" W x 6.5" D
- Weight: 5.6 Pounds
- $1,395 (USA)
- Neko Audio
Neko Audio is producing only this one product so far. Owner Wesley Miaw told me that he has some other products in development but the DAC has been his passion so far. Passion is the word for it too. This little gem has quite a bit of polish on it: Gold plated connectors, gold plated solder pads on the internal printed circuit boards, 9400µF of capacitance overall and pi filtering (capacitor – inductor – capacitor) on the power pins of every IC. These things are rare but perhaps the most unique design feature of this DAC is an all analog output stage consisting of 0.1% resistors and Jenson JT-11-EMCF transformers. Those resistors are performing the crucial current to voltage conversion step that is typically done with an Op Amp. The resistors are directly across the inputs if the transformers which similarly replace what is usually another Op Amp in typical CD players or DACs. The D100 Mk2 features new Jensen transformers that provide an additional 6dB of gain over the original model while maintaining the same sonic characteristic of the D100. I reviewed the Mk2.
The inputs on the DAC are S/PDIF only by RCA cable or optical Toslink selectable by a large knob on the front. There is no USB input. Outputs are to your order, balanced or single ended. Neko Audio also supplies balanced to single ended interconnects if needed.
I've listed the specifications above as they are listed in the printed Neko's owner's manual. There are a couple of sampling rates that you might perceive as missing from that list of supported frequencies. Namely 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz. Wesley Miaw told me that 88.2 is indeed supported however and my own tests confirm it. It's double however, 176.4 is not. I have favored 88.2 for recordings I make from vinyl on the presumption that the downsample to 44.1 will be a simple, less destructive affair than the compute intensive conversion from 96kHz would be. And there is the by-now well known Faulkner downsampling program that attempts to ensure that. I'm starting to wonder why I bother though. If I do a conversion to 44.1 it's to make a CD that I can use in the car. Enough said. Neko Audio is a web based business and the plan is to stay that way. The D100 is available for 30 day home trial.
Connecting a DAC is pretty simple as audio components go but still you get all the permutations, especially when you are compelled to try different cables. I tried the D100 in my main system both using both a balanced and an unbalanced connection. To connect unbalanced I used the XLR to RCA cables provided by Neko Audio. Switching to balanced with some Analysis Plus cables that I typically use for my phono stage did not provide as much of a difference as I have experienced with other components but it was still better in my judgment so that is how I did most of the listening for the review. Similarly on the input side this DAC does not seem as sensitive to how it is connected as some others (such as the Naim DAC that I also have on hand for review). Using the RCA to RCA cable that Naim provided with their DAC provided a slightly warmer sound with less air around instruments (or a less black background if you prefer) than using the optical connection. Connecting optically with the Ixos Ixotica DX1 provided the blackest background of all but the sound seemed a little etched compared to an older Wire World Supernova that I've had lying around so I settled on that as my favorite. I don't think these cables, especially the optical ones should sound different but they do. If you feel like your system needs an upgrade consider playing around with interconnects. Competition has finally set in and the prices are not all outlandish or otherwise inexplicable. A competent local stereo shop can be helpful, if they are audiophiles like us (and not just the type to sell you stuff). Ask them what sort of cables they like with the different brands they sell and why. They should know what sounds best with what they sell.
At the driving end of the digital interconnect I used both an old, old, old Marantz CD63 MkII and the new, new (new!) Emotiva ERC-1. The Emotiva won this contest hands down. I'm not particularly fond of this fact either. This DAC, like pretty much all DACs now, has some heroic anti-jitter technology, which in the end amounts to some way of buffering up the data. So, unless there are out and out errors over the S/PDIF I don't think the difference should be as dramatic as it is. Doesn't always matter what I think though.
My initial impression from the Neko was that the sound was natural and not fatiguing. This is high praise from a vinyl nut like me. Perhaps a measure of how not-fatiguing it is occurred when after listening to Bjork's Voltaic I switched to the balanced connection and listened to the same record all the way through again. The difference with the balanced connection was a slightly lower noise floor and slightly higher volume at the same level. Both of these are expected with a balanced connection and I think it is because the Neko's outputs are passive that the difference is less than I normally hear. Part of it could be that the noise floor is pretty low to begin with.
My favorite record of late is Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom. I of course bought the vinyl edition on this one but it did not come with a coupon for download of a digital version so I made a recording through my Benchmark ADC1. I recorded at 88.2kHz/16b. Why a 16 bit word depth and not 24? Because the free digital recording software Audacity is worth every penny. That's why. The setting for the word depth is buried in a menu that you might remember to check only after you've recorded six sides of vinyl. Anyway… I used that same software to downsample to 44.1 and then burned some CD's with windows built-in CD burner. In spite of the troublesome journey the CD's sound great. The Neko did not impose any sort of digital character on top of my minimally processed recording. The playback sounded like the vinyl. Not as good as the vinyl, which by comparison has a little bit more of everything, bass, high end (just a little), extended decay for notes from whatever instrument, separation between instruments. But still. the little bits of each of those that were lost when playing back through the Neko seem benign in nature. No digititus.
Amy Winehouse's Frank on the other hand is not minimally processed. By most standards it's not overly processed either. But it is by my standards. I generally like this CD but it's tough to switch to after listening to CD's I've recorded myself. However, it's a great way to see if a component has the guts on the bass end and the Neko passed the test. At the same time it presented the rest of the mix with a good sense of air and a natural sound for that unique voice and well recorded piano. And most important the Neko made me reluctant to stop the music for any reason. The Neko does present the entire mix of a recording rather than emphasize any part. For instance with this CD there is a heartbreaking tinge of gravel or emotion that comes through that voice on some of these songs and I've felt the heartbreak a little more with some other components. The Neko is just slightly on the relaxed side of the sound spectrum. My definition of 'neutral' is at least in part based on my Nottingham turntable and PS Audio phono stage, your mileage may vary. My SimAudio amplification stages are also on the relaxed side as compared to Edge amps for example. It would be interesting to hook up the Neko to such an amp.
Since I had the new Naim DAC here at the same time I had to do a lot of comparisons. The Emotiva keeps both the RCA and Toslink outputs going so it was easy to A-B in a slightly unfair way since both the Naim and Neko preferred an optical connection. Since the Neko was less picky I fed it with the RCA. In this configuration it was hard to tell the two apart. From an engineering standpoint this is rather comforting since the DAC chips in the two pieces are similar and the design philosophy is as well (power supply regulation or filtering at multiple points). It's less comforting (or maybe more comforting) from a consumer standpoint since the Neko costs less than half as much as the $3500 Naim (the Naim does have a bunch more inputs including USB and Ipod to be fair). When I fed the Neko with its favored optical connection I preferred it to the Naim. A better balanced and more luscious presentation. The Naim still kept the instruments a little more separate but the highs seem emphasized. The Naim has the ability to take it to another level entirely though when coupled with one of Naim's external power supplies. I'll cover that in the review for the Naim.
Speaking of 30 day home trials from internet-only companies, how does the Neko compare to that old fashioned way of listening to CD's – straight from the (Emotiva) CD player? The Emotiva really does something right with the overall mix and keeping the instruments separate. The presentation is brighter overall and any particular instrument or voice that you concentrate on sounds really good but there is a tinge of fatiguing digital quality when compared to the Neko or the Naim. I attribute this to the DAC chips used in these respective solutions. The Emotiva uses a thoroughly modern and math intensive solution while these standalone DACs use old fashioned solutions which are at least partially R2R resistor ladders (and partially delta-sigma). Keep in mind that manufactures will list delta-sigma as something to be proud of because of its ability to shift some of the noise out of the audio band but noise isn't the problem. Fatigue is the problem and the more simple solutions, while more expensive to produce, are better in this regard.
I also tried some high res files. I converted a USB output from my laptop to S/PDIF using the Trends Audio USB10.1 converter. The Neko indeed handled 88.1kHz as promised. Even with only 16bits per word the 88kHz sample of the Joanna Newsome album was a clearly better listening experience than the 44.1kHz version. Piano especially seemed to sound much more real with better attack and sustain and just sounding like a real piano with all its complexity. The overall sonic characteristics of this DAC (and the Naim) remained the same at high res but they just seem to matter less. Kind of like good turntables, they might sound different but who cares? They sound great and don't fatigue, that's all you need. An 88kHz, 24 bit recording I have of Cat Power's Dark End of the Street proved that 24 is more than 16. Way more. Listening through the Neko took me very close to the original Vinyl experience. Not as close as I'd like to be, especially when the record is sitting right there and I could just put it on but clearly, high res digital solves a lot of the problems that CD's have.
Since the Neko has a passive output stage (the transformers) I also wanted to try it with a different amp. Wesley Miaw told me that the preamp input impedance should be at least 10 kohm. I still had the Primaluna Dialogue Two on hand. This doesn't really fit the bill as a difficult load for the Neko since the input impedance on the Primaluna is specified at 100kOhm. Oh well, I had to try. It was well worth it. It seemed like nothing was lost in switching to this amp and in the case of some CD's, something was gained, call it tube magic. Feeding the Primaluna with the Neko (digital out from old Cambridge Azur DVD player fed through Arcam AV8) and driving my Aperion 5 series two way speakers made some CD's sound better than in my two channel system.
Aimee Mann's Lost in Space for instance. This music was recorded in the sound engineer's living room, a testament to what is possible these days (or those days, since this CD was released in 2002). But, the recording is limited, a mild case of digititus. No matter with the Neko and Primaluna, I didn't want to stop, the instruments were held separate (no smearing) and there was a depth and intrigue to the music. Proving once again that you don't have to spend megabucks to enjoy your music. Or your hometheater for that matter. I've been in two channel mode in my home theater for months now and I never really think about it except when I notice how good the sound is. Putting your money into two really good channels like those provided by the Neko and the Primaluna might be better than spreading you capital over five channels.
One of my many theories around audio is that people who listen to or play physical musical instruments are in a special position to 'voice' electronic playback equipment if they happen to be the designer. I think this is the case with my Daedalus speakers (owner Lou Hinkley plays guitar), and I think it is the case here, Wesley Miaw, owner of Neko Audio: "I learned piano and violin when I was young, and then later the trumpet. I grew up in a family of musicians: my dad plays Chinese violin; my mom the piano; one brother the piano and violin; the other brother piano, saxophone, drums, guitar, and also audio engineering." So, he knows what those instruments should sound like. And he knows a couple of things about electronic design as well. Combine those and you're likely to get some pleasing audio components. However it came to be this DAC is a real bargain and it deserves a listen.